Has Bernardo Bertolucci flipped out?
The man who once explored the frontiers of carnal obsession (in Last Tango in Paris) and the fervid intrigues of Italian politics (The Conformist, 1900) began gazing eastward last decade, coming up with a gauzy Chinese head trip called The Last Emperor. That's the one: multiple Oscar winner.
Now he's been reduced to macrobiotic fantasy.
In Little Buddha, a towheaded nine-year-old from Seattle is found by Tibetan monks to be the reincarnation of a dead lama. But not before director Bertolucci, who claims he purged his material cares years ago, indulges in a series of 2,600-year flashbacks, dreams-within-flashbacks and messages-within-dreams-within-flashbacks. These bizarre sequences, featuring Hollywood beach boy Keanu Reeves, of all people, in the unlikely role of Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha, are intended as a kind of Buddhist primer for ignorant Western audiences. Former Catholic boy Bernardo shows us the Four Noble Truths. And the prophet's journey of discovery. He shows us Keanu Reeves with a mud-caked beard three feet long.
Part stale hippie hallucination, part Cecil B. DeMille religious epic, Little Buddha will have all but the most glassy-eyed neomystics of Boulder County laughing out loud. Consider the sight of young Keanu, starved to near-unconsciousness for this and festooned with gold bracelets, with sixth-century-B.C. eyeliner running all over his face in a flood of tears--because sheltered Prince Siddhartha has discovered disease and death down by the riverside. If nothing else, this one clip could quickly become some kind of drag-queen cult favorite.
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The contemporary segments of the film are scarcely less absurd. The treacly boy-Buddha (little Alex Wiesendanger) comes equipped with a pair of icky yuppie parents (Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda) who really don't want their only kid careering off to the Himalayas with four guys in red robes to possibly become a demigod. The boy also comes with his own wise man, an aphorism-spouting old Tibetan monk named Lama Norbu (Ying Ruocheng), who isn't quite sure which of three far-flung kids may actually carry the spirit of Lama Dorje.
Hey, why not give all three of them an A on the final exam? That way, you can slap together a couple of nice kiddie-buddy scenes in teeming Katmandu and mount the movie's grandest folly of all--the big Tree of Knowledge flashback in which the tiny candidates imagine Prince Keanu's, er, Siddhartha's, terrible temptations by woman, serpent and what we might now call alter ego. Forget the fat-content controversy: By the time you get through this sequence, you'll think they've been sprinkling LSD on your popcorn out in the lobby.
Add up the film's new-age jive, the scenes of glazy stick-man Reeves using a huge cobra's head as an umbrella and Bertolucci's stubborn convert's urge to instruct us in the mysteries of the East, and you begin to wonder why this whole thing isn't on Saturday Night Live. You also wonder just what has befallen one of the world's great filmmakers.
Oh, well. If, as the Buddhists tell us, Nirvana is the extinguishment of desire, maybe this is it: After sitting through this outrageous bomb, you certainly won't have any desire to see another Bertolucci movie.